‘What important event happened in 1939?’ ‘I was born Sir’, responded my brother during a history class at Dulwich College some years after the ‘event’. He was given marks for a correct answer.
Tim was born five weeks before the outbreak of the war and it wasn’t long before we - Peggy, Jim, Judith and Timothy - left London for Norfolk to stay with Peggy’s brother on his farm. This interlude should have been respite for Peggy who had been unwell during her pregnancy with Tim yet it was one of the worst six months of her life. After suffering a stressful birth, her much longed-for second child yelled day and night for the entire stay, whilst I teamed up with a toddler cousin and conspired to be as naughty and as much nuisance as possible. Meanwhile Jim continued to live in Dulwich during the week to work on his most important commission so far, for London Transport, which was a significant patron of the arts at the time, with artists such as Jacob Epstein, Graham Sutherland and Eric Gill also contributing work.
Like most other people, we thought that the war would not last long and returned to Dulwich after our sojourn in Norfolk. We stayed until the next bout of bombing which must have been the Blitz, before moving to a tiny cottage situated in the middle of a field in Buckinghamshire. Whilst there, my mother had to cope with unbelievably primitive conditions - no running water, electricity or washing machine - although we did have wringer. My father, who was not ‘called up’ because of deafness in one ear, was working, amongst many other assignments, for the Ministry of Food. His posters, which were designed to encourage people to eat healthily and economically and to avoid waste, were displayed in restaurants canteens and food advice centres and have remained popular to this day. They can be seen now on display at the Imperial War Museum.
Three years or so into the war and after occasional forays back to Dulwich, we exchanged our primitive cottage in Buckinghamshire for a more comfortable one nearby, which at least had running water. Our ‘celebrity’ neighbours included the actor Alastair Sim whose only child, Merlith, became Tim’s playmate, with the duo even sharing their bedtime baths together. Another local figure from nearby Turville Heath was the protagonist of A Voyage Round My Father, Clifford Mortimer. The blind barrister was often Jim’s travelling companion when they took the train from Henley to London early on Monday mornings for their respective working weeks. His son John, of subsequent ‘Rumpole’ fame (and much else) was to become a family friend. He was a notorious young stud with many an attractive local woman having succumbed to his persuasive charm. I was too young to appreciate this at the time though I did think that he was the funniest person I had ever met.
Meanwhile, the war seemed never-ending and my parents like everyone else soldiered on. Peggy was, of course, totally occupied in looking after us with not a moment to herself, while Jim continued his work for the Ministry of Food in addition to newly-acquired commissions from the Ministry of Information, the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts and the War Artists Advisory Committee. Yet despite the complications of life in wartime and his numerous commissions, Jim relentlessly pursued his serious painting, which he executed at ungodly hours, arising early in the mornings and working late into the night. He became a member of the London Group and the New English Art Club and, from 1929, exhibited each year at the Royal Academy. In 1944 he received his most prestigious accolade when he was elected by the Academy to be an Associate Member (ARA).
Aside from his artistic ability, it was Jim’s energy and his commitment to advancing the role of contemporary art in everyday life which made him an invaluable asset to the Academy. He infused the institution with new life, sitting on the selection committees and speaking at the dinners. This did not please the older ‘dyed-in-the wool’ RAs, especially the extremely reactionary President, Sir Alfred Munnings. They had frequent fights over nearly everything, including the selection of paintings for the big annual Summer Exhibition ‘those bloody things you like Fitton’ whilst my father’s ‘outrageous’ suggestion that the women RAs should be included in the Academy dinners brought the response ’Women at our annual dinner. Bloody ridiculous, it would destroy the Academy!’ In spite of these sometimes very public spats, each man secretly admired the other’s tenacity and conviction.
Jim’s attitude and beliefs sprang largely from his Northern heritage and background. He was absolutely straight, incapable of any kind of sycophantic behaviour but extremely kind with deep convictions and a fierce sense of rebellion, which was just what the Academy needed. He was reprimanded on many an occasion after speaking out publically to the media and at RA dinners but was determined to bring life to the flagging institution ’your present pictures are too conventional and dull. You ought to get hold of some really outrageous ones. Hang them in the entrance hall, in the passages, everywhere. That might help to bring life into present day art’.
Although he was tremendously popular he was a constant threat to the old guard so it is not surprising that in three elections for future President in which he was a firm favourite, he missed by a whisker. The first, in 1956, prompted Munnings to fume in the Daily Mail ‘I heard that creature Fitton might be elected, I’ve had letters from members appalled at the prospect of this modern artist being elected’. Jim was undeterred by ‘these old chaps who only turn up on election nights in their bath chairs to keep the old order’.
Shortly after becoming an ARA, when Jim was sitting on the Selection Committee for the Summer Exhibition, he answered a telephone call from Downing Street - had any paintings by David Winter been accepted for the summer show? It just happened that Jim had noticed two rather good paintings by David Winter - an unknown - which the committee had just given a ‘yes’ to a few moments earlier. The request remained a mystery until Varnishing Day, when successful exhibiters are able to view their paintings in-situ and add finishing touches prior to the exhibition, whereupon it was revealed that David Winter was in fact Winston Churchill, who chose to submit his work under an alias and have his work accepted on merit rather than because of who he was. In 1948 he was elected an Honorary Royal Academician Extraordinary. Munnings meanwhile continued his paranoid vendetta against what he called ‘those bloody modern painters’ and thus brought about his eventual downfall. In a speech at an RA dinner where Winston Churchill was present, Munnings misquoted comments that the Prime Minister had made about Picasso. Churchill, an admirer of Picasso, was incandescent and Munnings was forced to resign.
We returned to Dulwich after the war in 1945 and found Pond Cottages to be relatively unharmed. When I say we I should add that there was an addition to the family, Toby, a black mongrel dog acquired in Buckinghamshire. Toby became notorious at the Dulwich and Sydenham Golf Club for his regular habit of trotting across the fields to the golf course and absconding with the balls. He brought them home to Pond Cottages, leaving golfers frustrated and furious.
While my brother and I settled into new schools yet again - I must have been to seven or eight schools altogether (and was only asked to leave one) - my parents enjoyed the prospect of peace. Peggy was able to find time to paint and sculpt and design a cover for the magazine Lilliput as well as illustrate a children’s book. Jim painted more although he seemed simultaneously to acquire many important and time-consuming appointments including that of Chief Assessor to the Minister of Education for the National Diploma in Design, a position he held for twenty years. Supporting artistic enterprise at every level he judged scores of children’s art competitions and local artists’ shows. Painters were helped personally. He gave them advice, sent money and helped them find commissions and jobs. Despite his elevated status and benevolence, he remained modest and humorous. When asked to fill in a form for Who’s Who, his entry under Clubs consisted merely of the Black Horse Burial Club, in which his father had enlisted him when he was born, at a penny a week.
Dulwich also was also enjoying peacetime and by the fifties was making a great recovery from the war years. Dulwich Picture Gallery was gaining belated recognition as one of the best galleries in the country and the Village, in particular, was entering one of its most useful periods. It was full of what I call proper shops comprising two butchers, two greengrocers, a fishmonger, a toyshop, a stationery shop, a hardware shop, a bakery, a post office and a shoe shop later to become a hairdressers.
My parents did most of the family food shopping in the Village on Saturday mornings with Jim driving down (he was a pre-test driver) in a canvas-topped Morris Eight. In his later years, under pressure from Tim, he bought a VW Variant automatic which he initially drove with the hand brake on, causing flames to emerge from the exhaust. Not long after that he put his foot on the accelerator thinking it was the brake, and drove it into the garage wall. Although he was not a ‘natural’ when it came to things automatic or mechanical, he did eventually adjust to the more advanced car, and journeys for the passengers became less like a bumper- car ride.
Towards the end of the fifties, we had an interesting visitor to Pond Cottages. Lady Churchill, with whom Jim was acquainted through her husband, expressed an interest in seeing his paintings and it was suggested that she should visit Pond Cottages on her way to Chartwell. Disappointingly, I was away on tour at the time but Tim was still at Dulwich College. He remembers seeing, on his way from rugby practice, a large chauffeur driven car with coat of arms, being parked by the Pond opposite the front row of cottages and Lady Churchill and her daughter emerging to walk up the lane to number ten. Tim was allowed time off to meet them, albeit in his rugby outfit, and was introduced in the downstairs studio where they were being shown paintings. Lady Churchill was very appreciative and had definite tastes of her own. Most people are familiar with the story of the Graham Sutherland portrait of her husband which she so disliked - it was destroyed in a fire, accidentally or otherwise ..
In the sixties, Jim’s activities in Dulwich alone were multitudinous. He was appointed a Governor of the Foundation Schools for whom he judged the art prizes each year and, with the help of the brilliant Head of Art at Dulwich College, Barry Viney, managed to persuade the Master, David Emms, to raise the profile of art in the school and introduce an art scholarship ’Even if you don’t turn out painters, many of your boys will be in charge of institutions that promote art, they should all learn something about it’. Jim both selected the art and interviewed the boys. He also served on many other committees, sitting on the Arts Council, the Royal College of Art Council, the governing bodies of the British Museum, and of course Dulwich Picture Gallery. I remember the odd battle being fought between my father and the governors - none of whom were professional artists. On one particular occasion I was appearing in Court and my father, not wanting to miss anything, came bounding up the stairs just as proceeding were about to begin saying ‘I’ve just left them [the governors] they will come to the wrong decision far quicker if I’m not there’. On that occasion, a new colour was being chosen for the walls of the Gallery and I understand that the right decision was made after all.
During the seventies, the family expanded when Tim and I took it in turns to produce a grandchild a year for four years. First Yasmin (Tim’s) followed by Victoria, Sophie and Tobias. Sunday lunch was never the same again. My parents adored them but Jim sometimes retreated to his garden studio for a long nap. I say the garden studio because Jim did eventually have a decent-sized studio built in the garden, without, it should be said, seeking permission from the College Estates.
My parents never became ‘Granny and Grandpa’ to the children (or heaven forbid Nan). When Tim was at school, he and a school friend decided that it was not ‘cool’ to say ‘Mummy and Daddy’, hence they became known to the family as ‘Ma and Pop’ ever after. Close friends sometimes followed suit, not least our disarmingly precocious young neighbour Jolyon Spencer from number seven Pond Cottages who wandered into number ten one day, as was his habit, and had no compunction in offering his services to Jim with ‘I say Pop, would you like me to do a magic show at your golden wedding celebration?’ He was six at the time.
The golden wedding was celebrated in 1978 (without a magic show) and my fit and well parents continued their active lives until 1982 when my father suddenly seemed to fail. It must have been a stroke though he didn’t lose his incisive way of speaking. He died in Dulwich Hospital a week later aged eighty-three. Our wonderful mother was devastated and I and the children moved into Pond Cottages for three months. She was determined, however, to remain independent and insisted on staying there after we left, continuing to look after grandchildren, regularly walking to the Village to the shops or my house, and painting. A marvellous bust she did of my father was exhibited at the RA in the year he died and several of her paintings were exhibited in subsequent RA Summer Exhibitions.
My mother was a very talented painter indeed but her output was probably smaller than it should have been. I can only respond by quoting her: ‘I don’t think it would have worked so well [the happy marriage and family] if we had both pursued high-powered careers’.
Two years after the successful retrospective exhibition of Jim’s at Dulwich Picture Gallery in 1986, Peggy became ill and died after thirteen days in Dulwich Hospital. She was eighty-six.
Sadly, because she will never know her grandparents but happily because she is here, Emily, the fifth grandchild was born five weeks after Peggy died.